The Obama administration reportedly ordered “increasingly sophisticated” cyber attacks against Iranian networks linked to nuclear enrichment facilities.
According to David E. Sanger of the New York Times, Obama decided to accelerate the attacks – begun during the Bush administration – even after the notorious Stuxnet worm escaped the confines of Iran’s Natanz plant.
Natanz was subsequently hit by a new version of the computer worm, which temporarily disabled nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 spinning centrifuges designed to purify uranium.
As Sanger points out, the cyber campaign, code-named Olympic Games, appears to be the first time the United States repeatedly used cyber-weapons to cripple another country’s infrastructure.
“Previous cyberattacks had effects limited to other computers,” confirmed Michael V. Hayden, the former chief of the CIA. “This is the first attack of a major nature in which a cyberattack was used to effect physical destruction… Somebody crossed the Rubicon.”
The initial computer worm – apparently coded by the NSA and Israel’s 8200 Unit – infected Iranian computer systems via thumb drives inserted by spies and unwitting accomplices with physical access to the plant.
Unsurprisingly, Teheran was initially “mystified” when the centrifuges began spinning out of control in 2008.
“The thinking was that the Iranians would blame bad parts, or bad engineering, or just incompetence,” one of the architects of the early attack explained. ”The intent was that the failures should make them feel they were stupid, which is what happened. They overreacted [and] we soon discovered they fired people.”
As one administration official notes, American cyber-attacks are not limited to Iran, but the focus “has been overwhelmingly on one country.” However, this is likely to change in the near future, as the Pentagon considers how the cyber option can be exploited to disrupt North Korean and Chinese military plans, or perhaps even interfere with global Qaeda operations.
“We’ve considered a lot more attacks than we have gone ahead with,” one former intelligence official confirmed.